I was never the sort of person who had their career planned out – my standard line to careers advisors and my parents was that I wanted to be a barrister but, when faced with the reality of what exactly that entailed, I soon realised it wasn’t the career for me. To be completely honest until I was 21 I’d never really thought past graduating from university and it took me a while to work out what I was going to do for, if not the rest of my life, at least the foreseeable future.
Like most people I almost fell into my career by accident but once I started working in Higher Education it didn’t take me long to work out that it was where I wanted to stay. I’m not a teacher or a researcher – that PhD application remains on my to-do list – but I’ve never been very good at talking about what I actually do for a living. Even the boy doesn’t really understand my job and the standard response I get from people when I tell them my job title (Knowledge Exchange Officer) is “oh well that’s a bit meaningless”. It’s no more meaningless than most job titles but people tend to get bored by explanations which take more than a couple of words…
Knowledge exchange is the term that’s currently in vogue for the higher education “third mission” – essentially the huge amount of business engagement and economic development activity undertaken by UK universities. It covers a huge range of activity and so people who work in knowledge exchange tend to have a bewildering array of job titles – business development officers, research development managers, corporate partnership executives, the list goes on. Since I got involved in this area of higher education my day job has been anything but routine – in any given week I can be involved in planning or delivering an event, costing a research proposal, developing a relationship with an external organisation, writing marketing materials, undertaking market research, attending a conference, writing a policy briefing… Well you get the idea – my job is varied!
There’s a huge lack of understanding about how important universities are for this country – not just for the students they teach or the research they undertake but also for the contribution they make to the economy. The recent Witty Review clearly recognised, perhaps for the first time, the vital role universities play in economic growth. Universities provide employment true but they also provide support, mentoring and funding for thousands of small businesses each year. Major investments by large businesses in the UK are almost always as a result of a partnership with one or more universities – and they aren’t always the ones you expect. Post-92 universities, the often sneered at ex-polytechnics, are just as vital to the UK’s businesses as the Russell Group – when it comes to business engagement universities such as Coventry and Hertfordshire are up there with Oxford and Cambridge.
The debate about UK higher education is too often framed in terms of student fees or world class research but there is far more to the story. Since 2001 successive governments have invested a relatively small amount of money (£150 million pounds per academic year) in pump-priming knowledge exchange activities through the Higher Education Innovation Fund. This funding has an estimated return on investment of £6 generated for every £1 spent. In addition, myself and thousands of other knowledge exchange professionals work hand-in-hand with our academic colleagues to ensure that the incredible knowledge base the UK’s universities possess in both blue-sky and applied research is a resource that is accessible to the whole of the UK economy.
When I graduated I had no idea what I was going to do with my life so no-one is more astounded than me that seven years later I actually seem to have a career. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work in two amazing universities with some wonderful people and to make a difference, in some small way. I’m passionate not only about what I do but also about the value of the third mission in higher education. Whilst I don’t expect everyone to share that enthusiasm, it is important to recognise the value of our country’s diverse, vibrant and economically-engaged university sector.